For the first time in their history, the Nationals are gearing up for a title defense. The reigning World Series champions spent the offseason re-signing several key contributors from their playoff run while making the media tour required of Commissioner's Trophy hoisters.
One player who won't be returning to D.C. in 2020, however, is third baseman Anthony Rendon. After finishing third in NL MVP voting last season and leading the majors in RBIs with 126, he inked a seven-year, $245 million with the Los Angeles Angels at the Winter Meetings and left behind a hole in the Nationals' lineup that has yet to be filled.
Free agents Josh Donaldson and Mike Moustakas signed elsewhere. There has been reported to be little traction between the Nationals and either the Chicago Cubs or Colorado Rockies for Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado, respectively. Instead, Washington is giving top prospect Carter Kieboom a shot at earning the starting job at third out of spring training.
ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian sat down with NBC Sports Washington's Todd Dybas for the Nationals Talk podcast and discussed just how much the team is going to miss Rendon's bat.
"They're not going to replace him," Kurkjian said. "He's way too good of a hitter. But what they're trying to do makes some sense. If Carter Kieboom is ready, and I'm not sure he is, but if he's ready and they put him out there every day, they got a chance to have a really good young third baseman on their team.
"If it doesn't work, they have Asdrúbal Cabrera, they have Howie Kendrick, they have other options even Starlin Castro. But none of those guys together are going to be as good as Anthony Rendon was and none of those is going to be able to help protect [Juan] Soto in the order."
LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW ON THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST
General manager Mike Rizzo said at the Nationals' annual WinterFest event in January that the team wants to "score runs in other ways." He spent the winter building their infield depth, signing Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick to play multiple positions.
But even so, the Nationals' lineup lacks the thump that Anthony Rendon and, in years past, Bryce Harper provided. Yet Rizzo made another area of the roster a priority: the bullpen. He inked Houston Astros set-up man Will Harris to a three-year deal and brought back playoff hero Daniel Hudson to form a formidable reliever trio alongside Sean Doolittle.
"Their bullpen is way better than it was last year, it has to be," Kurkjian said. "Their starting rotation is still great and even though they won't be the same team offensively-they can't be without Anthony Rendon-I think they're still a solid contender to win the division, solid contender to make the playoffs again."
The Nationals figure to be in the thick of the NL East race once again, but they'd like to do so without digging themselves into the 19-31 hole that they got into last season. While the string of comebacks and miracle performances made for an unbelievable championship effort and a legacy that will endure for generations, Kurkjian believes Washington is going to need to play more like a legitimate contender all season if it's going to return to the World Series.
"Will they repeat last year? That's never happening again," Kurkjian said. "It's not that they can't win another championship. The way they won it, that's a once-in-a-lifetime story and we're never gonna see that again. From them or very many other teams, either."
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